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The Northwestern Wildcats had their game against the Wisconsin Badgers circled all summer. They knew this was the game they would need to get if they wanted to be considered contenders for the Big Ten West. It was that kind of a showdown game.

The Wildcats played that way for the most part. The defense stepped up to the plate for the most part, getting stops and finding themselves in the backfield, creating consistent pressure. The secondary had some holes, but largely made plays.

Northwestern kept themselves in the game thanks to first-half turnovers. The offense certainly could not hold its own.

The offensive line problems became even more exposed as the team gave up eight sacks, none more critical than a safety late in the game with Northwestern trailing by seven points. The comeback where Northwestern scored twice in the final five minutes was about as dynamic as the offense had looked all game. Clayton Thorson was able to dart passes into tight windows and lead the team back into the game.

It was all short lived. Northwestern proved itself worthy to stand up to Wisconsin for a half. The Badgers dominance in this game was closer to the 31-14 lead the team had after a Nathan Jamerson interception return for a touchdown. That pick was built on the back of a defense getting constant pressure and a Northwestern offensive line that could not stop them, or create blocking room for the Wildcats’ running backs.

Never mind that Justin Jackson was hurt and clearly looked it. Albeit he would not have had much room to run even if he was healthy.

The same problems that dogged Northwestern through the non-conference season seemed to spring up again for the Wildcats in Madison. Wisconsin is certainly the best team Northwestern has seen so far (just like Penn State will be this week). The Wildcats seemed up to the challenge. Only as far as they could go.

The Wildcats have several pieces they need to pick up now after their loss Saturday. The coaches seem to recognize it too. It feels like a broken record though. And those Big Ten West Division title dreams have very much faded.

Run Game Required

Balance is a somewhat mythical goal for any football team. Every coach says they want balance, but a perfect balance is rarely achieved. And the score often dictates how much a team can rely on the run.

Establishing a solid run game, or having the ability to create running plays, though says something about the team’s ability on the offensive line. It says something about how the team is able to dominate the line and eventually protect the quarterback.

The Wildcats have Justin Jackson, injury or not, and a growing back in freshman Jeremy Larkin, who looked good in Saturday’s game, but neither had much room to run or get into open field. The offensive line is struggling in several areas, not just in pass protection.

In all, the Wildcats rushed for 25 total yards. Jackson rushed for 25 yards on nine carries and Larkin rushed for 37 yards on seven carries. No matter how anyone breaks it down, that

No matter how anyone breaks it down, that is simply not enough carries for such an important part of Northwestern’s offense. Clayton Thorson is a capable passer, but the team has always struggled when they rely on him too much. Northwestern is 1-5 in games where Thorson throws more than 40 times in a game.

That is what happened Saturday. And when the Wildcats become one-dimensional, they become very easy to defend. Or easier to defend. Especially with teams able to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. And with a porous offensive line, that means trouble for Thorson and the Wildcats offense.

Finding a way to get Jackson and Larkin in space and keep the defensive line off balance will be critical to Northwestern’s offensive development.

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The defense indeed became more complex

Throughout the non-conference season, everyone complained about how vanilla Northwestern’s offense looked. It looked like the team was holding back some of its strategy and blitz packages and relying heavily on the front four to create pressure.

That appeared to change at Camp Randall Stadium. Northwestern became a much more dynamic and stronger defensive team. The Wildcats relied on that defense to keep them in the game.

Northwestern gave up only 24 points to the offense (a safety and pick six make up the final nine points) and gave up just 306 total yards to a strong Wisconsin offense. The usually efficient Alex Hornibrook threw for 197 yards and had two interceptions. Northwestern was able to get after him and force him into some bad throws. Freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor rushed for only 80 yards on 19 carries.

The Wildcats totaled two sacks in the game and got a lot of pressure in the game. It was far from a dominant defensive performance, but it was a solid Northwestern defensive performance.

If the Wildcats can stay on the field offensively and give the defense some rest, they should be able to hold their own. Especially once the schedule lightens up after this week.

Offensive Line still the main story

The main story for this Northwestern team remains the offensive line. It is a broken record and something everyone has monitored all season long. Pat Fitzgerald addressed it directly after the game. He called some of the play embarrassing.

This is going to continue until the team shapes up.

At a certain point, Northwestern has to find a way to scheme around this weakness. The team has to try to roll the pocket, use more speed options to the perimeter or tosses to break up the logjam in the interior of the offensive line. Northwestern has to find a way to create balance.

At the end of the day, Northwestern needs to win some of these one-on-one battles or find ways to shore up the line with extra blockers.

Clayton Thorson has found success in the passing game this year. Bennet Skowronek has stepped up this year. Garrett Dickerson is a great safety valve. The Wildcats have also done well to get Justin Jackson involved in the passing game too.

These are all positive signs and help Northwestern scheme around their poor offensive line. But it is going to be tough to create explosive plays without the offensive line  giving Thorson or the running game some time.

Everything revolves around the line. And right now it is not up to snuff.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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Buckeyes Football

2018 Big Ten Championship Game Preview: 5 Things to Know

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What some may argue was one of the most intriguing and surprising seasons in recent Big Ten football history comes to a close on Saturday as the expected meets the unexpected. 

It’ll be the Ohio State Buckeyes against the Northwestern Wildcats for all the Big Ten marbles. For Ohio State it also means a potential berth in the College Football Playoffs are on the line. 

All week long we will take an in-depth look at this unexpected matchup. It starts today with a look at the 5 things to know about these two teams. 

5: Northwestern’s 5th in scoring defense in the Big Ten

That may not be a mind-blowing stat, but believe it or not the Wildcats have the better defense going in to this game and that can matter a lot when the nerves and dust settles on this game. 

Northwestern is allowing an average of just 21.7 points per game this season. Only three teams scored 30 points or more on the Wildcats — Akron, Nebraska and Notre Dame. 

Conversely, six of the last eight opponents have failed to score 20 or more points and only Michigan (20) and Nebraska (31) scored more than 20 points on Northwestern in Big Ten play. 

On the flip side, Ohio State’s defense comes in 7th in the Big Ten — giving up 25.8 points per game and allowing 40 touchdowns to opponents.

4: This is Ohio State’s 4th Big Ten championship game appearance

It seems like old hat at this point, but the Buckeyes aren’t the record holders for most appearances in the title game just yet. That honor belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers with five appearances. 

Still, no other team knows the ins and outs of Lucas Oil Stadium as well as the Buckeyes or Badgers do. That experience inside the stadium and with all the things happening around the game will matter a bit, especially early on in this game. 

OSU holds a 2-1 record in the three previous games, beating Wisconsin twice and losing a 34-24 decision to Michigan State in 2013. 

A win in this game would break a three-way tie for most title game wins with MSU and Wisconsin — all of which have won twice in Indy. 

3: OSU QB Dwayne Haskins is averaging just over 3 TD passes per game

The record books have loved putting Dwayne Haskins’ name in them in 2018. I mean, he broke a record I thought never would be broken — Drew Brees’ single-season touchdown record — by throwing 42 touchdowns and counting. 

Doing the mental math there, that means he is averaging 3.5 passing touchdowns per game. It also means he leads the country in passing touchdowns this season. Will Greir is next on the list, but he’s five touchdown passes behind Haskins. That’s how good of a season he’s having. 

It’s led to a record-breaking six Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards this year. Oh, and his 4,081 yards already this year make him one of only two quarterbacks to do that in the 2018 regular season. 

As for Northwestern? This could all be dangerous news, especially considering the fact that the Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense (238.0 yards per game). The good news is NU’s pass defense has bent, but not broken a lot — giving up just nine passing touchdowns to opponents this year. 

Which will win out? The Buckeyes pass attack that gets yards and scores or the NU defense that allows yards, but not touchdowns through the air…

2: Northwestern has fumbled the ball just twice all season

One way to win close games is by not making big mistakes. Northwestern has been pretty good about that, fumbling the ball just twice this season. It’s the lowest total in the Big Ten and tied for fewest in the country with Mississippi State. 

Unfortunately, the Wildcats also had 13 interceptions on the year. Only Rutgers (22), Minnesota (14) and Illinois (14) had more interceptions thrown on the year. 

Ohio State’s defense has been one of the best in forcing fumbles this season. It’s 11 fumbles gained are second in the Big Ten to Indiana’s 13. 

Which one will give on Saturday in Indianapolis? 

1: It’s Northwestern’s first appearance in the Big Ten championship game

A lot of the talk this week will not only center on Ohio State’s CFB Playoff hopes, but also on the fact that Northwestern is making the trip to Indianapolis for the first time. 

There have been seven Big Ten championship games and excluding the first ever edition of it, only one team making its first appearance in the title game has won. That was Penn State beating Wisconsin in the title game back in 2016. 

In total teams are 1-3 in their first appearance in the game. It’ll be a major talking point and rightfully so, as the hoopla and extra stuff around the game make this very different than any bowl game other than the Rose Bowl for a Big Ten team. 

How Fitzgerald and the Wildcats coaches handle figuring out how to handle all the extra stuff will be vital. Some will try to embrace everything that happens, others will insulate their kids. It really depends on the personality of the team and getting it right can mean as much as getting the game plan right on game day. 

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Widcats Basketball

WATCH: Northwestern unveils inside look at Welsh-Ryan Arena

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After a year spent at the strange confines of Allstate Arena out in Rosemont, the Northwestern Wildcats basketball teams will return home to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2018-19 season. 

On Friday, the Wildcats released a video look at what the new-look arena actually looks like ahead of the opener. 

Take a look at this state-of-the-art arena built around the old school appearance on the outside. 

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Football

Northwestern finally solves Ryan Field riddle in OT win

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Northwestern had three tries to win at home and lost all three so far this season. It was almost four, but the Wildcats found a way to prevail 34-31 in overtime over Nebraska on Saturday afternoon. 

The win was the Wildcats third in the last four meetings and second-straight in the series between these West division foes.

It also meant Nebraska was sent to an 0-6 start to the season, something that has never happened in the history of the Huskers program. 

It was an interesting way to win the game for Northwestern, as walk-on kicker Drew Luckenbaugh went from a goat to hero in less than 30 minutes of football. 

The back-up kicker missed an opening kick from 42 yards out in the third quarter, but would hit an important field goal with his team down 10 points late in the fourth quarter and drill the game-winner from 37 yards out in overtime.

Northwestern also got a big day from quarterback Clayton Thorson. He completed 41 of 61 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Only a pair of interceptions put a blemish on his day, as did the fact that the Wildcats only got 32 yards on the ground on 23 attempts. 

Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez wasn’t as good, throwing for 251 yards but only one score and two interceptions on the day. 

But, the dueling pair of interceptions were a wash, as both teams got 10 points off turnovers. 

The win for Northwestern seemed to be slipping from its grasp much as it did against Michigan a few weeks ago. As time wore on, momentum swung heavily towards the visiting Huskers. 

Nebraska appeared to take control of this game in the second half. A trio of unanswered touchdowns took a 14-7 Northwestern lead to a 28-14 advantage with just 13:40 to play in the game. 

But, unlike previous home contests, Thorson and the Wildcats had an answer or two in them. It was a quick answer to bring the game within a score, as the Wildcats got a 61-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel.

But, Barrett Pickering made it a 10-point game with a 34-yard field goal with 5:41 to play. 

Lukenbaugh answered back with a key field goal to make it 31-24 with 2:27 to go. His 31-yard field goal capped off a 15-play drive that went 62 yards in just 3:14 of time. 

Nebraska was held to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive and Northwestern capitalized on the momentum swing of its own. 

It would take a full 99 yards though, as the Huskers pinned Northwestern back on its own 1-yard line with the punt. 

This time it took just eight plays and the Wildcats hit pay dirt on a 5-yard pass from Thorson to JJ Jefferson with just 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter. 

Nebraska looked like it was going to have an easy time of it in overtime, getting to third and one thanks to Devin Ozigbo’s nine total yards. However, a false start backed them up to third and six. 

Martinez would complete a 5-yard pass and instead of kicking the field goal, head coach Scott Frost rolled the dice on fourth and one. It came up snake eyes, as Martinez’s pass was intercepted by Northwestern. 

The Wildcats didn’t get much going on its possession and instead, went for the game winning field goal attempt which was knocked in by Luckenbaugh. 

For his late-game heroics, the former walk-on was carried off the field on the shoulders of his fellow players. 

The win improves Northwestern to 3-3 on the season and given the punishing schedule it faces, winning this game was a must to even dream of getting to bowl eligibility. 

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Football

Thorson dials up best against MSU once again

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As much as you can never seemingly trust the Northwestern Wildcats football program, it appears you can trust one thing. 

That one thing is that Clayton Thorson will find a way to dial up his best against the Michigan State Spartans. 

Coming in to Saturday’s contest with Michigan State, Thorson had put up 637 yards and seven total touchdowns while completing 72 percent of his passes in just two games. 

History repeated itself on Saturday, despite the Spartans holding Northwestern to 10 total yards on the ground. Instead, Thorson ripped apart the MSU secondary for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 31 of 47 passes. 

It all added up to a 29-19 victory and proof positive that Thorson is MSU’s Kryptonite. 

At least this time around it wasn’t all on Thorson’s shoulders though, as he got a ton of help from his defense. 

Michigan State’s rushing game woes continued as Northwestern held the Spartans to just 96 yards on the ground. The Wildcats defense also forced 11 stops on third downs, meaning MSU would go just 4 of 15 on third downs in the game. 

Spartans signal caller Brian Lewerke gave his best effort, but having to attempt 51 passes (and completing just 31 of them) is not what MSU’s offense is built for. 

Wide receiver Felton Davis III did everything in his power too. He had seven receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, while adding another touchdown on the ground too. 

But, he was the only one that really showed up and MSU seemed unable to get out of its own way for large parts of the game. 

Meanwhile, Thorson made the most of his opportunities. That included catching MSU peaking in to the backfield early on in this game and connecting with a wide open Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown to make it 7-3 Northwestern with just 18 seconds to go in the first quarter. 

It quickly became 14-3 on another Thorson touchdowns pass and his third touchdown of the game gave the Wildcats the final go-ahead score of the game. 

He hit Cameron Green on a 21-yard pass with 15 seconds left to go in the third quarter to make it 22-19. 

The final dagger came on Northwestern’s final drive of the game. After a quarter of nothing, Thorson put one in on the ground from two yards out to make it the final 29-19 margin with 2:51 to play. 

Thus continued the yo-yo season for the Wildcats and the head-scratching start to the Spartans season as well. 

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